On the last Sunday in December 2001, a small group of dedicated volunteers from the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) met at a warehouse in Redmond, where the household goods they have been collecting through generous donations are held. Loading up a delivery van with beds, dressers, kitchen tables, lamps and sofas, the women spent the next several hours making deliveries to clients in their “Shalom Bayit: Furnishing Peaceful Homes” project, a project made possible in part due to an allocation from the Jewish Federation Community Campaign.
The women benefiting from these household goods are victims of domestic violence who have left the abusive situation and are trying to pick up the pieces of their lives and start again. Weeks earlier these same clients had visited the warehouse to “go shopping” for the household items they needed to help make their new apartments more livable. Most are able to take small items home with them — things like toasters, linens and pots and pans — but the larger items need to be delivered. NCJW has been coordinating pickup of items donated by community members and delivery of items to its clients two or three times a month since the project began last September.
Jennifer Cohen, chair of this new project, shared that NCJW is working with the King County Coalition Against Domestic Violence, a coalition of agencies that all work with clients of domestic violence (DV). She said, “Nothing like this exists in King County for DV clients and we have helped women from as far away as Federal Way furnish their new homes.” Since the project began, 10 clients have been provided with household items from the warehouse — double the number that was initially expected would be helped in the first few months, and half of whom were Jewish. “We’ll probably end up helping closer to 50 clients this year versus the 25 we originally envisioned,” said Cohen.
In addition to the general household goods the clients are able to acquire at the NCJW “store,” Jewish clients are also given a mezuzah to affix to their new homes. Cohen related the following story: “A young mother came ‘shopping’ at the warehouse, carefully choosing items she needed most. As she was getting ready to leave, I walked over to her and handed her a mezuzah. She grabbed me and hugged me hard and said, ‘This was all I needed.’ It still gives me the chills every time I think about it. To know that a small gesture made such a big difference for this woman is an incredible feeling.”
Shalom Bayit: Furnishing Peaceful Homes spent a year in the development stage. During NCJW’s centennial celebration in 2000, the women’s organization began thinking about what its next “big” community project should be. NCJW created Neighborhood House, originally called Settlement House, which opened in 1916 and was established for immigrants, and Council House, which officially opened its doors in 1972 and was created for low-income senior residents and is subsidized housing. Thirty years later, a new generation of members wanted to give back to the community as well.
The Young Women’s group of NCJW had coordinated a project in conjunction with Project DVORA at Jewish Family Service. They put together Jewish holiday baskets for Jewish victims of domestic violence who were staying in shelters. This seemed to be a logical place to start, so they contacted Michelle Lifton, director of Project DVORA, to see how NCJW might get more involved with clients in the project. What they learned was that most victims of domestic violence who choose to “get out” do so with virtually nothing but the clothes on their back. What they need most after escaping the violence is a place they can call home, but that home needs to be furnished with household goods. This was the seed for Shalom Bayit: Furnishing Peaceful Homes.
“What these woman have gone through is stressful enough. Our goal, through this project, is to help relieve some of the added stress that comes after they leave the abusive situation — by being a free resource where they can obtain household items and a bit more than the bare necessities to make a new home for themselves and their children,” said Cohen. “When you see the way these women are living, sometimes with nothing but a mattress on the floor… And then we arrive with the furniture they have picked out and we help them set up their apartment: We walk away feeling as if we have made a significant difference in their lives. It is incredibly rewarding.”
Cohen shared that both the Jewish and non-Jewish communities have been incredibly generous with donations. Word of mouth has spread about the project to such an extent that they have not had to do much advertising for items. However, she did indicate that donations of gently used household furnishings would be welcome, especially twin and double beds, dressers, kitchen tables and chairs, couches, linens and items for the kitchen. “In order to accommodate clients who keep kosher, we will need to begin receiving donations of new pots and pans, dishes and silverware so they are able to take these items and not be concerned about having to kasher everything.”
Since the project has become successful so quickly, NCJW recently hired a part-time coordinator to help keep the warehouse in order, field client and donation calls, help with publicity and fund raising and further the project along. In addition, Michelle Lifton from JFS will be doing some training of the volunteers to provide them with information and tools on how to interact with clients and how to spot victims of domestic violence. The goal of the training is to provide the volunteers with enough information to become advocates for preventing domestic violence and be able to support legislation that is being developed in support of domestic violence victims.
Cohen said, “Most of us are fortunate to be in safe, loving and supportive relationships. We feel tremendous compassion for these women and walk away from our encounters with them wondering ‘What else can I do to help?’”
Shalom Bayit: Furnishing Peaceful Homes is one answer.